Brian Eno – Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

by Jon Burke Rating:10 Release Date:2017-11-01

Brian Eno’s first solo record, Here Come the Warm Jets, is, by any metric, a classic rock album. Countless moments of gorgeous pop appeal are nestled within Eno’s bizarrely experimental song structures. The album’s creation was a ‘kitchen sink’ experience – Eno having roped-in sixteen seemingly incompatible musicians, from a variety of musical backgrounds and genres, to assist in creating his record. The goal was to induce a competitive atmosphere, and for accidents to happen, with the knowledge that said accidents could equate to genius. For Robert Christgau, Warm Jets was reminiscent of The Velvet Underground in that it was at once an off-putting, and yet engaging, listening experience. Warm Jets may have moments of dissonance peppered throughout but, on the whole, the album is decidedly more brilliant than confounding. Ultimately Here Come the Warm Jets set a very high bar for whatever was to follow.

To avoid the sophomore slump, Eno created his Warm Jets’ follow-up in a less abrasive, more minimalistic and tightly controlled atmosphere.  Instead of brining on so many diverse players, Eno locked-down a core of dedicated studio musicians. He even implemented his “Oblique Strategies,” a deck of cards, printed with vague or highly specific suggestions, on their faces which could be used in moments of indecision to inspire a path forward or a solution to a problem. The album’s title was taken from an opera originating from China’s Cultural Revolution and thus Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy could be described as a concept album in as much as general themes like East Asia, revolution, paranoia and politics run throughout several of the songs. With that said, there is no cohesive theme to the record as a whole. Instead, what Tiger Mountain offers is ten tracks showcasing Brian Eno’s range as a producer and musician. Where Warm Jets felt fun and somewhat moored to Eno’s glam Roxy Music past, Tiger Mountain feels serious and immediate and intense.

Tiger Mountain’s opener, "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More" is a languid jangle of a tune and a bellwether for Eno’s relationship with the guitar going forward – the instrument’s power being reduced to that of a mere rhythmic pattern laid atop other rhythmic patterns. Lyrically the song is a collection of Orientalist tropes: a woman seated in lotus position, China referred to as Cathay, rice picking, espionage, microtechnology and bonsai. There also appears to be no separation in the writer’s mind between China and Japan. There’s a smirk underpinning the whole song suggesting Eno is fully aware of the ridiculousness of the words and the ways in which the West (mis)reads the East.

“Back in Judy’s Jungle” introduces an odd but interesting element which returns several times throughout Tiger Mountain: the carnival. The instrumentation, which includes whistling, combined with the song’s waltz-like rhythm lends the track a jolly, festive air. “Judy’s Jungle” might as well be the soundtrack to a trapeze act or juggling. The lyrics, telling the story of a bungled military operation, are also heavily evocative of some dark comedy. The final product is a song not dissimilar to the whistling theme from The Bridge Over the River Kwai or Yossarian’s whistling in Catch-22. The carnival sound also returns on “Put A Straw Under Baby,” a melancholy dirge punctuated by toot-toots of an organ.

Eno’s best use of carnival atmospherics however is found on “Mother Whale Eyeless.” This time in the form of what sounds to be an organ playing music written for calliope. Adding to the whimsy is a child’s chorus singing about a blind whale who lives in the sky and a man in the whale’s belly missing his raincoat. The juxtaposition between Eno’s flat delivery of the verses and the soaring pitch of the children’s chorus is marvelous. Equally as impressive is the juxtaposition of the relatively straight ahead rock riff opening the song that launches into space when the organ abruptly cuts in and suddenly the rhythm becomes denser and multi-layered. The two sections merge by the track’s raucous conclusion into a fiery cacophony gradually fading into nothing. “Mother Whale Eyeless” boasts Tiger Mountain’s first moment of sublime perfection and is certainly one of the best songs in Eno’s impressive catalog.  

There has been enough ink spilled already about the importance of “Third Uncle” to the history of punk rock. It’s not worth lingering on the subject other than to say that the connections are obvious and undeniable. Despite his glam/prog associations, Eno’s work and talent went well beyond the parameters of those rather limited genres. The sounds of Wire, Gang of Four, Devo and all things Mancunian can be found in this single track. “Third Uncle” also feels like a 180 BPM reminder of what is missing from most of popular music today: aggressive passion. Despite an ice cold vocal delivery by Eno and a rocket-propelled rhythm, “Third Uncle’s” high pressure intensity pulses with life.

The album’s centerpiece, “The True Wheel” rolls-in like a glam rock express train. The song’s driving beat, distorted guitar, hammering piano and fields of weirdly off-key organs still sound like the future. Then, instead of doing the obvious, Eno throws in that same children’s choir again to create a massively catchy chorus. Just when things settle back into traditional glam territory, Eno throws a wrench in the works by suddenly changing the well-established tempo in the middle of a weirdly minimal guitar solo. The song concludes with a reference to the Modern Lovers, more proto-punk and Eno singing in a nerdy-but-aggressive style that surely acted as a direct influence on David Byrne. “The True Wheel” is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Tiger Mountain concludes with “China My China” and the album’s title track. While neither has the power of “The True Wheel” both are worth mentioning for some unique musical innovations. Rhythm, or an ambient lack thereof, has often been the key to Eno’s brand. On “China My China” he deploys the sound of typewriter keys as a percussion instrument. While “found sound” surely happened prior to the recording of Tiger Mountain, few examples of its power or perfection standout like the clack-clack of the typists on “China My China.”  The titular track, “Taking Tiger Mountain,” comes across as a kind of mournful a synth and (almost slack-key) guitar take on “We’ll Meet Again.” Though most of the song is instrumental, a chorus of voices eventually croons about the need to “be kind,” among other sweet sentiment. The soft verses seem to drift away as they close the album. Despite having the feel of vaguely ethnic “island” music, “Taking Tiger Mountain” is oddly apropos as a final track pointing the way toward Eno’s ambient future.

 

 

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